This book is a chronicle of a confused time, a period when Americans rose up against imaginary threats and rallied to economic theories they understood only in the gauziest terms. It is about a country where fears of a radical takeover became epidemic even though radicals themselves had long since ceased to play any role in the national life; a land where ideological nightmares conjured by TV entertainers came to seem more vivid and compelling than the contents of the news pages.
Seen from another perspective, this is a chronicle of a miraculous time, of another "Great Awakening," of a revival crusade preaching the old-time religion of the free market. It's the story of a grassroots rebellion and the incredible recovery of the conservative movement from the gloomy depths of defeat. Inevitably the words "populist" and "revolt" are applied to it, or the all-out phrase chosen by Dick Armey, the Washington magnifico who heads one of the main insurgent organizations: a "true bottom-up revolution."
Let us confess that there is indeed something miraculous, something astonishing, about all this. Consider the barest facts: this is the fourth successful conservative uprising to happen in the last half century, each one more a-puff with populist bluster than the last, each one standing slightly more rightward, and each one helping to compose a more spellbinding chapter in the historical epoch that I call "the Great Backlash," and that others call the "Age of Reagan" (the historian Sean Wilentz), the "Age of Greed" (the journalist Jeff Madrick), the "Conservative Ascendancy" (the journalist Godfrey Hodgson), or the "Washington Consensus" (various economists).
Think about it this way. It has now been more than thirty years since the supply-side revolution conquered Washington, since laissez-faire became the dogma of the nation's ruling class, shared by large numbers of Democrats as well as Republicans. We have lived through decades of deregulation, deunionization, privatization, and free-trade agreements; the neoliberal ideal has been projected into every corner of the nation's life. Universities try to put themselves on a market-based footing these days; so do hospitals, electric utilities, churches, and museums; so does the Post Office, the CIA, and the U.S. Army.
And now, after all this has been going on for decades, we have a people's uprising demanding that we bow down before the altar of the free market. And this only a short while after the high priests of that very cosmology led the world into the greatest economic catastrophe in memory. "Amazing" is right. "Unlikely" would also be right. "Preposterous" would be even righter.
In 2008, the country's financial system suffered an epic breakdown, largely the result — as nearly every credible observer agrees — of the decades-long effort to roll back bank supervision and encourage financial experimentation. The banks' stumble quickly plunged the nation and the world into the worst recession since the thirties. This was no ordinary business-cycle downturn. Millions of Americans, and a large number of their banks, became insolvent in a matter of weeks. Sixteen trillion dollars in household wealth was incinerated on the pyre Wall Street had kindled. And yet, as I write this, the most effective political response to these events is a campaign to roll back regulation, to strip government employees of the right to collectively bargain, and to clamp down on federal spending.
So let us give the rebels their due. Let us acknowledge that the conservative comeback of the last few years is indeed something unique in the history of American social movements: a mass conversion to free-market theory as a response to hard times. Before the present economic slump, I had never heard of a recession's victims developing a wholesale taste for neoclassical economics or a spontaneous hostility to the works of Franklin Roosevelt. Before this recession, people who had been cheated by bankers almost never took that occasion to demand that bankers be freed from "red tape" and the scrutiny of the law. Before 2009, the man in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht.
From Pity The Billionaire by Thomas Frank. Copyright 2012 Thomas Frank. Excerpted by permission of Picador.